The First World War inspired a lot of writing in England, understandably so, for it was the first war in which the elite was actively involved. Conscription, and also the patriotic fervor that was whipped up in the first war to be fought as much by the media as the military, led to a number of literary figures being actively involved.
English fiction however is not as memorable as that of other countries, with the writer of war stories who has lasted longest being John Buchan with his Boy’s Own Adventure type of tale. The poetry however was remarkable, and a range of writers taken together express the angst of a generation led to what in retrospect seems unnecessary slaughter.
I will look in this series however at only a single writer, who was far and away the best. Though many such as Rupert Brooke and Raymond Asquith (son of the Prime Minister, killed in battle, a phenomenon that we have not seen repeated since in wars we know of) and Julian Grenfell wrote individual poems that are moving and memorable, it is only Wilfred Owen who presented a wider perspective as to the whole ghastly business.
His approach is best summed up in his ghastly account of a solider dying of poison gas in Dulce et Decorum est, a realistic assessment of what the old Latin saying, that it was a pleasant and proper thing to die for one’s country, really meant.
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent(14) for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
I have divided this into stanzas as in an edition I once saw, though it can also be presented as seven quatrains. This version helps to make the attack more immediate by emphasizing the shifting rhythms, the stolid troches (strong/strong) of the 6th line and the gerunds and participles with the ‘ing’ ending of the second stanza. Then we have the helplessness of the individual who is too late with his mask, in the short stanza with its conclusive suffering, followed by the churning descriptions in the third and fourth lies of the next stanza. And all this then is subsumed by the analytical conclusion in which Owen makes mincemeat of the old Latin tag, in a shatteringly truncated last line, sold to schoolboys but also to adolescent Britain in the frenzied patriotism media hype engendered.
A longer and more melancholy view of the war is presented in the sonnet, Anthem for Doomed Youth, the very title emphasizing the waste of a war planned and prosecuted by an older generation with the victims being youngsters. Owen sustains the comparison with a church service with telling images, the rapid fire of the rifles sounding like hurried prayers, the shells keening like a choir, and then the moving attribution of light to the eyes of the dying.
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles7 calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
The poem is made the more poignant by our knowledge that Owen himself died on the front a week before the Armistice was declared.
Owen could also be lyrical though writing about war. One of his most moving poems is Futility, about the inability of the sun to bring back life to a dead man. The reminder at the beginning of the second verse, about how the sun brought life to inanimate earth, leads only to the desperate cry at the end, wondering why life was created at all.
Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.
Think how it wakes the seeds,—
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved—still warm—too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?
Insensibility is a worrying reminder of how soldiers can lose feeling when exposed to relentless suffering. It is a long poem, but I think worth citing in full, for the subtle distinctions between those hardened enough by battle not to feel, those youngsters who are able to remain unaffected by their experiences, and then ‘we wise’ who are in a state of despair. Against all these he sets at the end of the poem the heartless of those who chose such a perspective, and cared nothing for the misery of those sent abroad. The last two lines suggests a universal sympathy, shared by animate and inanimate, save only those who were dullards without being stunned into this by cannonades. By choice they have placed themselves outside ‘the eternal reciprocity of tears’.
Happy are men who yet before they are killed
Can let their veins run cold.
Whom no compassion fleers
Or makes their feet
Sore on the alleys cobbled with their brothers.
The front line withers,
But they are troops who fade, not flowers
For poets’ tearful fooling:
Men, gaps for filling:
Losses, who might have fought
Longer; but no one bothers.
And some cease feeling
Even themselves or for themselves.
Dullness best solves
The tease and doubt of shelling,
And Chance’s strange arithmetic
Comes simpler than the reckoning of their shilling.
They keep no check on armies’ decimation.
Happy are these who lose imagination:
They have enough to carry with ammunition.
Their spirit drags no pack.
Their old wounds, save with cold, can not more ache.
Having seen all things red,
Their eyes are rid
Of the hurt of the colour of blood forever.
And terror’s first constriction over,
Their hearts remain small-drawn.
Their senses in some scorching cautery of battle
Now long since ironed,
Can laugh among the dying, unconcerned.
Happy the soldier home, with not a notion
How somewhere, every dawn, some men attack,
And many sighs are drained.
Happy the lad whose mind was never trained:
His days are worth forgetting more than not.
He sings along the march
Which we march taciturn, because of dusk,
The long, forlorn, relentless trend
From larger day to huger night.
We wise, who with a thought besmirch
Blood over all our soul,
How should we see our task
But through his blunt and lashless eyes?
Alive, he is not vital overmuch;
Dying, not mortal overmuch;
Nor sad, nor proud,
Nor curious at all.
He cannot tell
Old men’s placidity from his.
But cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns,
That they should be as stones;
Wretched are they, and mean
With paucity that never was simplicity.
By choice they made themselves immune
To pity and whatever moans in man
Before the last sea and the hapless stars;
Whatever mourns when many leave these shores;
The eternal reciprocity of tears.